A hidden cause of Benghazi tragedy

By David Rohde
November 16, 2012

Amid the politicking, there’s an overlooked cause of the Benghazi tragedy

For conservatives, the Benghazi scandal is a Watergate-like presidential cover-up. For liberals, it a fabricated Republican witch-hunt. For me, Benghazi is a call to act on an enduring problem that both parties ignore.

One major overlooked cause of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is we have underfunded the State Department and other civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security. Instead of building up cadres of skilled diplomatic security guards, we have bought them from the lowest bidder, trying to acquire capacity and expertise on the cheap. Benghazi showed how vulnerable that makes us.

Now, I’m not arguing that this use of contractors was the sole cause of the Benghazi tragedy, but I believe it was a primary one. Let me explain.

The slapdash security that killed Stevens, technician Sean Smith and CIA guards Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty started with a seemingly inconsequential decision by Libya’s new government. After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s interim government barred armed private security firms – foreign and domestic – from operating anywhere in the country.

Memories of the abuses by foreign mercenaries, acting for the brutal Qaddafi regime, prompted the decision, according to State Department officials.

Once the Libyans took away the private security guard option, it put enormous strain on a little-known State Department arm, the Diplomatic Security Service. This obscure agency has been responsible for protecting American diplomatic posts around the world since 1916.

Though embassies have contingents of Marines, consulates and other offices do not. And the missions of Marines, in fact, are to destroy documents and protect American government secrets. It is the Diplomatic Security agents who are charged with safeguarding the lives of American diplomats.

Today, roughly 900 Diplomatic Security agents guard 275 American embassies and consulates around the globe. That works out to a whopping four agents per facility.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department relied on hundreds of security contractors to guard American diplomats. At times, they even hired private security guards to protect foreign leaders.

After Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowly survived a 2002 assassination attempt, the State Department hired security guards from DynCorp, a military contractor, to guard him. Their aggressiveness in and around the presidential palace, however, angered Afghan, American and European officials. As soon as Afghan guards were trained to protect Karzai, DynCorp was let go.

But the State Department’s dependence on contractors for security remained. And Benghazi epitomized this Achilles’ heel.

Unable to hire contractors, the Diplomatic Security Service rotated small numbers of agents through Benghazi to provide security, on what government officials call temporary duty assignments, or “TDY.” Eric Nordstrom, the Diplomatic Security agent who oversaw security in Libya until two months before the attack, recently told members of Congress that though he twice requested 12 agents he was rejected – and told he was asking for “the sun the moon and the stars.”

He testified that he replied bluntly to his superiors in Washington. “It’s not the hardships,” Nordstrom testified he had said. “It’s not the gunfire. It’s not the threats. It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And I added it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.’ ”

Other State Department officials also say that the reliance on contracting created a weakened Diplomatic Security Service. They said department officials, short on staff and eager to reduce costs, nickeled-and-dimed DS security requests.

“That is not a DS-centric issue,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That is a Department of State issue.”

Democrats have blamed Republicans for the lack of funding. They point out that House Republicans rejected $450 million in administration requests for increased Diplomatic Security spending since 2010. They say Senate Democrats were able to restore a small part of the funding.

But these partisan charges and counter-charges ignore a basic truth. Resource shortages and a reliance on contractors caused bitter divisions between field officers in Benghazi and State Department managers in Washington.

One agent who served on the ground in Benghazi felt the compound needed five times as many Diplomatic Security agents, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official singled out Charlene Lamb, the Diplomatic Security Service official who oversees security in Washington, for criticism — saying she rejected repeated requests for additional improvements in Benghazi.

These officials confirmed complaints from Lieutenant Colonel Andy Wood, the former head of a U.S. Special Forces “Site Security Team” in Tripoli, that Lamb urged them to reduce the numbers of American security personnel on the ground even as security worsened across Libya. Wood and his team left the country the month before the attack.

In equivocating, evasive and shameful testimony before Congress in October, Lamb at first said she received no formal requests for additional security from Libya. She then absurdly claimed, “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11.”

Lamb’s superior, David Kennedy, has defended her. He argued that a handful of additional Diplomatic Security guards in Benghazi – or the Special Forces team in Tripoli – would not have made a difference.

To date, no evidence has emerged that officials higher than Lamb or Kennedy were involved in the decision to reject the requests from Libya. Both are career civil servants, not Obama administration appointees.

There is a broader issue beyond the political blame game. Benghazi is a symptom of a brittle, over-stretched and under-funded State Department. Without being able to hire private contractors, the department provided too few guards and hoped a nearby CIA base or friendly Libyan militia would help them. An excellent recent report in the New York Times found that the U.S. military’s Africa Command was under-resourced as well as unable to help.

The investigation by the Senate and House intelligence committees into whether or not the Obama administration misled Americans after the attack or altered intelligence should continue. But the core issue before the attack was a lack of resources and skilled management, not shadowy conspiracies.

Many factors caused the death of Stevens and the three other Americans. But in the partisan free-for-all now unfolding, this key factor must not be ignored.

PHOTO: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) and committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga) speak during after the closed committee meeting on the attack of the American Consulate in Benghazi, on Capitol Hill in Washington November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magaua

PHOTO INSERT: CHRIS STEVENS, April 11, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

NOTE: The number of Diplomatic Security agents was corrected to 900 from 2,000.

 

12 comments

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Mr. Rohde,
I don’t completely disagree with your assessment — the problem was the lack of sufficient security.

However,to imply that use of contractors for security was even partly to blame is ludicrous. Still, your statement, “we have underfunded the State Department and other civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security” is spot on.

What occurred in Libya is the common bureaucratic issue of “penny wise and pound foolish.” Considering Libya did not allow contractor support, Ms Charlene Lamb, the Diplomatic Security Service official who oversees security in Washington, should have properly managed her available government security assets (some 2000 agents). To play “backseet driver” here, I would have taken Diplomatic Security agents from locations that do allow contractors and move them to Libya, then, I would have backfilled those with contractors. Problem solved.

Furthermore, David Kennedy’s argument, that “a handful of additional Diplomatic Security guards in Benghazi – or the Special Forces team in Tripoli – would not have made a difference” is completely bogus. Had there been proper security to start with, the embassy would not have been a viable TARGET (or such an EASY ONE!).

We had a saying, back in the Army, that we don’t maintain a powerful military to necessarily fight wars, a powerful military is to meant to PREVENT them. It’s simple human nature — a burgler isn’t going to rob a place that has proper security as his/her first choice, when there’s a place that is clearly not protected as the better option!

Having good, noticable security measures in place deters attack.

Posted by MSHAGAN | Report as abusive

David, you have it absolutely right, and given all your hard foreign experience, you know exactly how it works.

You should even go further and ask why so much of these wars are outsourced to contractors — period. If it isn’t the Dyncorps types that become abusives, it’s the NGO types that get killed more easily. It’s as if we don’t have regular army doing these hard jobs anymore.

The left will say that the right is responsible for cutting the foreign budget which led to trimming requests specifically even for Benghazi.

But that does overlook the problem of the narrative here that Obama really has been spinning, which is that there was a success story like the killing of Osama, and that Amb. Stevens just had to be in Benghazi only to open a new hospital wing and “develop”. It’s a narrative that liberal Peace Corps types have been harping on for ages,usually with pious sanctimony that other government agencies don’t know languages and cultures or only know how to kill people.

The world is that much more dangerous, all the diplomatic posts need to be guarded by the Marines like they are in Moscow — Marines who know local language and culture but who don’t have affairs with each other or the locals. Is that too much to ask?

Posted by catfitz | Report as abusive

“Far more troublesome was the role of the Department of State. Knowing that the war could come to an end, sooner or later, the Department of State should have prepared a plan that had the concurrence of the War Department and the approval of the White House. By not having developed a plan, it was forced to acquiesce to the course of action proposed by the War Department. In other words, it subordinated itself to the wishes of the War Department in carrying out foreign policy.”

James M. Gavin
On to Berlin
“A fighting general’s true story of airborne combat in World War II”
Viking Press, 1978, pg. 355-357

Posted by NeilKitson | Report as abusive

Just a couple comments. No one should need reminding that Congress controls the purse strings. Bureaucrats ‘soldier on’ trying to make do with what they are given and being required to defend their performance with the means provided. Completely different, I note that Senator John McCain is ex officio member of the Senate committee on Intelligence. What did he know and when did he know it? Did he encourage other members of the committee and House colleagues to provide inadequate funding to protect brave Americans serving our country overseas? It looks like there is plenty of blame to go around and this is a minor problem coompared to the complete mismatch between government revenues and government needs established through desires of citizens. I would wish that all of our politicians would meditate only on that problem.

Posted by dotap | Report as abusive

The real problem is, it’s illegal under international law for diplomatic missions to participate in espionage. Yet our four diplomats in Libya were 400 miles from their Tripoli Embassy…. near a CIA office in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they were just trying out the Benghazi Burger King. Or something.

Not that I care if our diplomats were spying on Libya. That place is barely a country. We should spy on Libya. But why can’t we just be honest about it now?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The hidden cause of the “Benghazi tragedy” is having the CIA entrenched in the city in the first place.

The US has long meddled and interfered in most every country in the world to insure the world remains safe for its corporations.

Withdraw from all these places. No foreign bases, period. Diplomatic relations based on equality.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

RE: …why so much of these wars are outsourced to contractors

The primary reasons are cost and availability of skillsets.

The Federal government does not want to have war-specific skillsets on the payroll except when they are really needed — that is where contractors come in. Keeping special security personnel trained and on-hand is expensive, so the government “out-sources” it to contractors. Say what you will, but outfits like DYNCORPS protect their wards and do it well. Sure, noone is perfect so, occasionally, mistakes happen. Clearly, this is not “systemic,” otherwise there would be no contract support. What comes out in the media will be, by nature, a bit exaggerated or it wouldn’t be “news.” But as one who has served in hostile environments, I can say I felt more secure when the contractor security was around. The ones I had exposure to were completely professional and always alert — that is what they are paid to do, and they do it well. Will such intense people rock an occasional boat? Probably. Don’t know about you, but I for one appreciated them being there and that they had my back.

In order to keep our military and our Government personnel numbers down, contractors are necessary. When you consider paying for contract support over all the long-term costs associated with government/military employees, it comes out cheaper/more cost efficient.

FYI: Contractors are only allowed to do functions that do not qualify as “Inherently Government Function” (see: https://www.acquisition.gov/far/current/ html/Subpart%207_5.html). Whatever the contractors do, it is under the oversite of Government personnel…Think about it.

Posted by MSHAGAN | Report as abusive

MSHAGAN writes: “Keeping special security personnel trained and on-hand is expensive, so the government “out-sources” it to contractors.”

Huh? Can you give us an example of outsourcing being cheaper than just having your own people do it? Outsourcing adds a whole additional layer of overhead and administration. KBR was billing $124 per head per day to feed soldiers at Iraqi bases. The cost in WWII to feed soldiers in battle (in today’s dollars), was $7 per day. Only in Halliburton math does an 1800% increase equal a savings for taxpayers.

What is very clear is why the Iraq War lasted 8 years while World War II only only took us 4. The Iraq war was fought with many contractors on hand, and it was a milk-job from the start.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The argument over contractors vs fulltime government employees has been debated by many way over my pay grade(!) – I’ll remain neutral on this discussion. Certainly, the “system” is far from perfect –abuses of the systems happen on both sides of this discussion (both, government employees and contractors have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar), and it’s probable there were many abuses throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan events (back throughout history for that matter). I can’t begin to address that as an individual writing on a blog. But, I do want to express that there is more than what meets the eye when it comes to contractor vs fulltime hire. Especially under hazardous-duty conditions.

That said, to keep things simple, I’ve included some links (below) that support my broad statement about costs and skillsets.

It’s all in the accounting. Sure, the contractor might seem to get more take-home money (and, with all the federal cuts, this isn’t necessarily the case anymore), but the federal employee will cost more because of things “other than salary.” Also, the federal employee is hard to get rid of – a contractor can be cut in the blink of an eye.

And, the “special skills” contractors will cost more and there are good reasons (“supply and demand,” for one).

There are many reasons behind the “big numbers” you see in the press – for example, of the contractors available, how many were willing and able to provide (fill in the blank services) under (fill in the blank conditions) and be able to accomplish this under (fill in the blank) restrictions?

Another thing to think about is “going into a war zone” – not all government contractors are willing/able to send their employees into harm’s way, they can’t afford to spend the money required to do so or can’t wait for the federal government to pay them (lots of trust involved in this relationship); not all companies can even afford the cost of the insurance required.

SO, what I’m saying is, contrary to popular belief, there aren’t always companies just lined up to provide necessary services and the impending crisis doesn’t allow for being picky…decisions must be made and there’s no time to waste. How many people do you think are willing to go into a combat zone to cook, pump gas, haul garbage, do menial labor?? – even with hazardous duty pay, it’s hard to find employees! Simply lining up personnel — often involving multi-national cooperation — can be overwelming and isn’t something an up-start company can pull off.

Move the clock forward, once the initial invasion (or whatever the high-risk event was) has occurred and people are able to see that whoever DID go in managed to come out pretty well, then everyone tries to sound like they could have under-bid the company that got the contract. By then, it’s too late, since the government made the commitment and the contractor that went in with them has already committed resources/assets/etc.. Would it be fair then to kick out the contractor who went in during the “worst of times” now that the “good time Charlies” are now willing to take the risks?

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/shou ld-you-hire-a-contractor-or-a-full-time- employee/5033153

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/costs-emp loyee-vs-independent-contractor-1077.htm l

http://sbinformation.about.com/cs/laborl aws/a/contractor.htm

http://www.sba.gov/content/independent-c ontractors-vs-employees

http://www.clearancejobs.com/cleared-new s/398/cleared-professionals-preference-g overnment-contractor-or-government-emplo yee

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/federal -eye/2011/02/government_shutdown_what_ab out.html

Posted by MSHAGAN | Report as abusive

Halliburton was a ‘special skills’ contractor in Iraq. And failed to ground the circuits in the shower rooms they built. Killed U.S. servicemen.

These things happen, but I certainly do not believe their arugument that they are special. They are expensive, they milk wars, and worst of all: they have no incentive to leave.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

MSHAGAN asks: “How many people do you think are willing to go into a combat zone to cook, pump gas, haul garbage, do menial labor??”

Well, for most of U.S. history…. that’s what army privates were for. If you don’t have enough privates, don’t go to war. Or use cruise missiles. It’s really not that complicated. A land invasion of Iraq was a war of choice. We know now, that it was a cooked-up war of choice. The rush was completely fabricated. The decision to not initiate a draft was also a political one. If we were really in that much danger, Bush should should have asked Congress for a draft.

The contractor thing was a boondoggle that did not have to happen. You’d have to be extremely naive to think that a CEO of Halliburton in the White House, and Halliburton winning tens of billions in no-bid contracts was some kind of coincidence. We know now that the whole thing was pretty much treason. That’s why Bush still can’t show his face in public. The GOP did not bring him out once for the 2012 election. His endorsement would be poison.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Cher Mr ROHDE,
I was absolutly stun to read all the lies you wrote about Benghazi, you all love to tell the most incredible mensonges when it facilate your way of thinking, you should watch the documentary that was just on french television Canalplus by Kamal Redouani,the Arab Spring: Springboard for Radicals?
it goes with incredible detail how the Obama people new way before and during the murder of thoses incredible men, it explain exactly why all this happen,and it was design exactly the way Obama wanted,please the world today is very small,not like WW2 when W.Churcill warn america with proof of the mass muders Hitler was doing, and this famous paper you are proud off ,was calling Churchill a war munger.
Honesty is very important and fact can’t be change.
Repects

Posted by tx75202 | Report as abusive